In 1846, a Latter-day Saint named Jacob Hess was driven out of Illinois with his family by violent mobs, thanks to the state and federal government turning a blind eye. Jacob, for whom I’m named, was an older man, and as with other more vulnerable members of his community, both young and old, the impact of this forced dislocation was ultimately lethal.
He is one of an estimated 3,000 buried in a mass grave at Mount Pisgah Iowa, a sacred spot for me. His story — multiplied many times — helps to explain why Utah’s leaders have charted such a different response to refugees compared with other conservative parts of the country. It’s also no doubt why Utahns are especially attuned to indicators of a rising mob mentality in America today.
Have you seen the signs? Earlier this month, the left-wing activist group ShutDownDC announced cash payments for anyone who provided the location of any of the six conservative Supreme Court justices — $200 if the justice stayed in that location long enough for someone to show up.
The group’s aim is clearly not to facilitate autographs, but instead to harass justices daring to issue rulings that are not suitably progressive. This initiative follows protests and picketing outside of these same justices’ homes starting this spring and with heightened regularity over the past two months.
Of course, such pressure is not exclusive to Supreme Court justices or even conservatives, with Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently saying, “There’s protests three, four times a week outside my house.”
All this begs the question: Is this really the new norm we want to accept when it comes to some official decision that one part of our nation dislikes?
In recent months, the U.S. has experienced more than 100 acts of aggression (mostly vandalism and property destruction) targeting organizations and people who are opposed to abortion, according to a list compiled by The Family Research Council that goes back to May 2, when the Dobbs draft decision leaked. That includes the defacing of 32 churches (25 of them Catholic, and one Latter-day Saint chapel), significant damage to 53 pregnancy crisis centers and other anti-abortion facilities, and 21 other disturbing incidents.
Two summers ago, even more property damage took place during the “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter demonstrations, complete with buildings set on fire, looting and as much as $2 billion in damage, reported to be the highest insurance losses ever for riots and civil disorder.
Remarkably, all this was minimized by some commentators who argued that the destruction of property is not something we should be that concerned about; after all, “it’s just property.”
But, of course, it’s much more than that. When my ancestor and namesake Jacob Hess saw how many other Latter-day Saints’ farms were being burned by impassioned local “activists,” he and his family were forced to retreat into the city because, as he wrote, “we did not feel safe in remaining on our farm longer.” Before they had time to transfer their supplies, their belongings were destroyed by the mob, leaving the family almost destitute.
Any such destruction is certainly about more than “just property damage.” It is a kind of psychological warfare that amounts to emotional terrorism, much like the graffiti left on damaged churches and crisis pregnancy centers, including: “If abortion isn’t safe, neither are you.”
It doesn’t take a scholarly analysis to connect this kind of psychological warfare to the human injuries and deaths that inevitably follow; for example, police officers found the remains of a burned body in a Minneapolis pawn shop that was torched during BLM riots as demonstrators cheered outside unaware. At least 15 people were killed during those riots, and in New York City alone there were nearly 400 police officers hurt during the same two-week period.
More broadly, 2021 saw the highest number of law enforcement officers who were intentionally killed in the line of duty since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to FBI data. One local police chief in northern Utah confided to me how difficult it is to recruit new police candidates in this climate. They used to be the “good guys” that save the day. That was before the mob turned on them.
Of course, violent attacks that end human life unite all people of conscience across the political spectrum. However, when it comes to other kinds of pressure-point campaigns designed to badger and intimidate, none of this gets popularly discussed as “mob action.” Instead, there is a discussion that attempts to justify it, dating back to the late Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and the associated encouragement toward “collective action.”
Much of this comes from the left of the political spectrum. But, of course, in the other direction, we’ve witnessed in the Jan. 6 hearings troubling evidence of a mobilization on the other side of the political spectrum, with people prepared to take up arms against their government if needed.
So much of this seems contrary to the core principles at the heart of America, where the government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.”
It’s true the founders believed it is our right, indeed our duty, to throw off a government that leans toward “absolute Despotism,” so there’s something to be said for righteous collective action. Yet in the Declaration of Independence, the founders enjoin “prudence” against the impulse to rush to undermine governments “long established … for light and transient causes.” And we must be careful when talk of “tyranny” and “fascism” is used as rhetoric to “rile up the base.”
In November 2019, I wrote with concern about the increasing willingness in American politics “to employ an incendiary language of revolution” — gathering worrisome examples on both sides of the political spectrum. For instance, although they seem a distant memory, the Mueller investigation and impeachment proceedings were repeatedly characterized by then President Donald Trump as an “attempted coup,” and a “brazen attempt to overthrow our government” that would be met with force by his supporters.
“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad,” he said.
He was right; it did get very bad. In a comment now seen as prescient, Washington Post columnist Aaron Blake raised concern about the potential for such rhetoric to “plant a seed in certain people’s minds.”
That’s what promiscuous talk of a need to “rise up” with aggression does: pave the ground for something real, like what we were ultimately horrified to witness on Jan. 6.
In our hyperpartisan atmosphere, it’s too easy for political leaders to tap into undercurrents of rage in an attempt to mobilize people. And as we’re witnessing these days, it’s equally easy for partisans on both sides to justify “a little aggression” here and there, as long as it’s in support of their cause. We’ve seen that among conservatives talking about Jan. 6 and liberals talking about the BLM demonstrations.
All of this is a far cry from the righteous revolt of our founders, who sacrificed dearly to create a transformative system where we can deliberate over our widely disparate views on what is harming American society and what to do about it:
Talk. Grapple. Consider competing views. Vote.
There are so many options on the table before mobilizing in aggression and violent protest. Yet more and more people seem to be concluding that the right way to respond to something wrong is to rise up collectively and force others to change.
In a stirring passage in “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis talks about a dark power who fomented “a civil war, a rebellion” among God’s children. But then he contrasted a nonviolent effort Christians can embrace even though they are living in enemy-occupied territory. “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
Sabotage by speaking truth. And building a kingdom of peace.
In the end, perhaps this becomes the great choice: Which great cause will we be a part of? A righteous mobilization that seeks to change hearts, or an oppressive one that seeks to force behavior?
Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”